It Was a Dark and Stormy Night….at Whispers Estate

It may be a cliché to say it was a dark and stormy night, but as we pulled into the eerily empty downtown of Mitchell, Indiana on our way to tour Whispers Estate, it literally WAS a dark and stormy night. In fact, it rained for the better part of two and a half hours as my 19-year-old daughter and I made the drive south of Bedford but, as we were headed to an actual purported haunted house, we didn’t really mind. It only added to the experience.

Whisper Estate in Mitchell, Indiana

Whispers Estate in Mitchell, Indiana

Frankly, as we crawled to a halt on Warren Street, we both realized this place didn’t need any help from Mother Nature. If spooky has a poster child, it’s Whispers Estates.

Pulling up in the dark, it wasn’t difficult finding the place. Just picture a typical block near the downtown of any small Indiana burg with its large older homes in various shapes and sizes and you’re half way there. Now picture one of those large houses standing silent, dark and foreboding with only creepy purple light streaming from its street lamps and you’ve crossed over to the other side. Whispers Estate announces its presence in silence and – lucky you – you get to pray that silence is the only thing you hear. Given its past history of growls, knocks, self-closing doors, childish singing, falling objects, mysterious footsteps and vague whispers – hence the name, Whispers Estate – before the night is over, you may be begging for a little silence from beyond the grave yourself.

And did I mention the earthquake shaking toilets? Which, in this instance, have nothing to do with either my husband or too many refried beans? More on that in a moment.

We parked on the street, somewhat unsure of what to do as I had forgotten when I registered for our hour-long flashlight tour that we were to meet in the garage in the backyard. I did, however, remember that we were to wear athletic shoes. No hard sole shoes are allowed on any flashlight tours or mini investigations to reduce background noise. This became a reoccurring and somewhat unsettling theme during our visit to Whispers Estate. The home’s owner, Van Renier, and his tour guides are very serious about the goings on at Whispers Estate and, collectively, they take great pains to explain away and debunk ANY unusual occurrences. Their attitude was so upfront about what wasn’t paranormal that, I’ll admit, I was impressed. And then, I’ll admit too, I was nervous.

If they voluntarily explain every odd noise, just what, pray tell, can we attribute to the UNexplained ones? That had me pondering.

My daughter, Jackie – a lover of all things ghostly – stood back on the sidewalk as I climbed the steps to the front porch where a solitary rocker sat. At any moment I expected it to start rocking on its own, but fortunately, it cooperated which was good since I forgotten to put on a pair of Depends. Naturally, a funeral home stands cattycorner to the house and, in this dark little town which seems to have forgotten to pay the light bill, it was the only building well lit. Turning back toward the house, I tried peering through the windows, but could see nothing as they were blacked out. Terrific, I thought. Bring on the dark.

Jackie in her element at Whisper Estate

Jackie in her element at Whispers Estate

Back on the sidewalk, we were joined by three middle-aged couples who didn’t know each other, but who all happened to live in Avon. Since there is safety in numbers, we proceeded as a group through the rain to the backyard and entered the garage which serves as a makeshift launching pad to the supernatural world beyond.

There we signed in, handed over our liability release waivers – which declared us to be healthy and which gave the folks at Whispers Estates permission to seek emergency medical treatment if we needed it – we selected our flashlights from a basket on the table, and sat down to await our tour. As we sat, we chatted with the guides while also looking at posters displaying pictures of past visitors who apparently got more their money’s worth. From a police officer with a large bite mark on his arm to a teenager with three strange, red scratches on the back of his neck, evidence mounted that this wasn’t your standard, run-of-the-mill, high-school-fundraiser, pop-up-only-at-Halloween type of experience.

And naturally it was after I read the description of some earthquake-like experiences on the toilet that I heard my daughter ask innocently enough, “Is there a bathroom I can use?”

Great. No more soda for you, grasshopper.

Like most old garages, the one at Whispers Estate is potty free, so one of the tour guides led us through the back door of the house to the small bathroom just off the kitchen. Fortunately, there was a light, but bright as it was, we still looked around nervously while awaiting a good shaking as we took turns doing our business. Had something happened, at least we would have been in the right place.

Returning to the garage, we joined the other six for a lesson on the house’s less than pleasant history. Note – I stuck around and was able to hear this same introduction to the 10 p.m. tour group which was comprised of young girls (who I would guess to be about 10-years-old) and their parents. As I sat in the background listening to this same introduction, I realized that the guide was downplaying certain aspects of the goings on in the house – and rightly so. Once more I was impressed with the staff at Whispers Estate. Apparently, when you give tours at a house that is really haunted, the goal is to not work at scaring the guests. After all, why make the effort when you can let the house do it for you?

Young Rachel Gibbons died in the house and may have never left.

Young Rachel Gibbons died in the house and may have never left.

Flashlights in hand, the eight of us finally proceeded through the backdoor. One poor man had made the unfortunate mistake of expressing a lack of enthusiasm for all things paranormal so our first tour guide nominated him to open the doors of each room as we entered. Another victim – I mean, visitor – was nominated to shut the doors of each room behind us. Quickly, we proceeded through the main hallway to the parlor where we sat down and the real tour began.

For the record, I’m not going to give away any of the tour highlights. Each room is unique and comes with its own story. For example, in the parlor we were first introduced to Rachel, the young adopted daughter of Dr. John Gibbons and his wife Jessie. One Christmas eve, Rachel snuck downstairs to peek at the presents, but her nightgown caught fire in the parlor and she died a few days later as the result of her injuries. Mother Jessie died in the master bedroom of tuberculosis. Four other people are also known to have died in the house, not counting any patients of Dr. Gibbons, who apparently couldn’t keep his hands to himself.

The flashlight tour covers the house from attic to basement including a red-painted room that had each of us muttering, “redrum” from Stephen King’s “The Shining.” The good doctor’s exam room did give me a frightful start when I noticed the scale on the floor, which reminded me of the horribly hateful one in my own bathroom back home. My daughter nearly fainted when she spied an actual rotary phone and may still need counseling.

As we toured the house, the three women from Avon openly called out to Rachel throughout the house, but heard nothing in reply. The house’s owner, Van Renier, joined us at the end of the tour and asked that none of the child spirits be provoked. Van is protective of his young spirits, though not so with the one referred to as “Big Black” who may be responsible for the scar over his right eye – tangible evidence from his own encounter when he was shoved down the stairs of the attic.

Our tour was the first of the night at 8 p.m. and, for the most part, we survived it unscathed. The 9 p.m. tour apparently was not so lucky, given that a large shadow followed them up those same attic stairs responsible for Renier’s scar and, while the group stood in the “redrum” red room, they could hear soft knocking on the door. The guides told us that, as the night progresses, activity picks up so if you’re dead set – excuse my pun – on having an experience, the later the better.

Of course there had to be creepy clown dolls in Rachel's bedroom.

Of course there had to be creepy clown dolls in Rachel’s bedroom.

As for me, I will admit, I’ve never had an encounter with anything paranormal. But I’m not saying I don’t believe. Two people whom I have known all of my life and who will remain anonymous have had experiences and they are two of the most honest and least imaginative people I know. As for me, nothing.

I shared my lack of paranormal experiences with Van who did give me the greatest chill of the night. As we discussed his own experiences in the house which have led him to believe and my own lack of paranormal experience, he warmed, “You can’t un-ring the bell. Do you really want to fall down the rabbit hole? Because once it happens, you can’t go back and pretend it didn’t.”

Now that’s a scary thought.

For me, it has yet to happen. At least, I think it hasn’t happened. In Jessie’s bedroom I experienced a feeling – I won’t give it away so as to not prejudice you should you go – just as our guide began to describe this very same feeling. Was it paranormal? I don’t know. I also don’t know if I really want to thoroughly un-ring that bell. But curiosity is a wicked mistress so I’m sure at some point, I will go back.

I left with a t-shirt stating I had been examined by Dr. John.

I left with a t-shirt stating I had been examined by Dr. John.

If you would like to un-ring that bell for yourself, Whispers Estate offers flashlight tours hourly from 8 p.m. to midnight and mini-investigations starting at midnight through either 3 or 4 a.m. (the times change from month to month) beginning at the end of August and running every weekend through October. Halloween is primetime so make your reservations early as tours and investigations fill up fast and the number of participants is limited. While regular tour hours end after Halloween, Whispers Estate is happy to schedule visitations for groups of 10 or more at other times throughout the year. My suggestion? Even if there are only seven or eight of you, given them a call and ask. They may just accommodate you.

Flashlight tours run $10 per person and, in my opinion, are well worth it even if you don’t end up wetting yourself in the process. Mini investigations run $10 per hour per person, thus an investigation from midnight to 3 a.m. will cost you $30 per person, and until 4 a.m. will cost you $40 per person. I haven’t participated in a mini investigation yet so I can’t tell you what goes on, but it is definitely on the bucket list and you can get a sense for these investigations on YouTube.

For more information on Whispers Estate and to schedule a tour or mini investigation, check out the website at: http://whispersestate.com/

To follow the mansion’s haunted happenings like the Whispers Estate’s Facebook page at:

https://www.facebook.com/#!/whispersestate?fref=ts

Follow my newspaper column blog at: http://outaroundwithrobin.wordpress.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RobinFritz or email at outaroundwithrobin@gmail.com

481266_10203777348727600_1608806686782902373_nBy Robin Winzenread Fritz

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Missionary Style – An Idiot’s Guide to Doing Good Works in Haiti (Part II)

The sun rises over Jeremie, Haiti

The sun rises over Jeremie, Haiti


Since traveling to Haiti, I’ve had several people mention to me how they hope to someday go on a similar trip. It’s exciting to see how contagious mission work and travel can be. My friend David planted a seed with me, and now I hope to plant similar seeds with others.

And as David gave me the low down on what to expect before we left, I feel it’s only appropriate to fertilize the seeds I’m planting with a little sage advice, keeping in mind that I am still very wet behind the ears in the mission-trip travel department. But every little bit helps, so if you to want to go out and do good works in Haiti too, here are some practical tips to pave the way.

Our project at the Gebeau compound in Jeremie - the "before" view

Our project at the Gebeau compound in Jeremie – the “before” view

Part II – The Details

Pack light and prepare to sweat – My teenage son likes to whisper “hoarder” in my ear whenever I try to repurpose anything so, as you can imagine, packing light is an ordeal for me. During my recent trip to Italy, I left a wake of herniated airport employees behind me. But I managed to dig down deep and pack only essentials for Haiti and – guess what? For once in my life, I actually packed too light.

I took a tiny bottle of liquid Tide with me so I could sponge things out every evening and wear some things twice. I SHOULD have taken some string to use as a clothesline too, so learn from my mistake. Also, what I hadn’t counted on was the reality of the work at hand. Our project consisted of cleaning out and refitting a barn for a future tractor delivery, and, by cleaning out, I mean we CLEANED IT OUT. Rats, big ass spiders, years of accumulated dirt, bird poop and oil, and coconut shells by the hundreds left us all grimy, gritty and gross. Additionally, we did it in 90 degree heat – which, by the way, is the cool season in Haiti. Come summer, it’s actually hotter.

Every day was hot, sunny and beautiful - enjoying the view of the Grand Anse River

Every day was hot, sunny and beautiful – enjoying the view of the Grand Anse River

So at the end of the day, I pretty much smelled like a camel, and my work clothes could stand up by themselves. All the sponging in the world couldn’t put a dent in the funk growing in my shoes by mid week and I actually lived in fear of running out of soap and shampoo. Come to think of it, my companions actually lived in fear of me running out of soap and shampoo too.

Don’t pack for vacation, pack for work and if it has sentimental meaning, leave it at home – As I knew I would be working on that barn before leaving, I packed work clothes, including my favorite old navy blue polo shirt. It’s not a great shirt nor is a good looking shirt, but as shirts go, it’s a favorite because it’s broken in and very comfortable. I’ve spent a lot of hours telecommuting in that shirt.

Mark cuts a ceiling brace with a handsaw - no power tools were on site because we had no electricity

Mark cuts a ceiling brace with a handsaw – no power tools were on site because we had no electricity

But what I hadn’t counted on in Haiti was looking into the faces of so many people with so little. It made me seriously regret the state of my walk-in closet back home, so I let them pick me clean like a buzzard on road kill – and I would do it again in a heart beat. When workmen pointed to my gloves, I let them have the gloves, because they were working harder than me. When a little boy kept admiring his reflection in my aviator sunglasses, I let him have them, and he strutted around worthy of his new nickname, Rico Suave. When another young man came back with us to the guesthouse at the end of one day and asked if we had any clothes to spare, I gave him that polo shirt because it was the only thing I had not yet been worn or sweated in. By the end of the week I was also down a baseball cap, safety glasses, several magazines, a pen and a water bottle too. And I wish I had had more to give. Much as I loved that shirt, there’s plenty more in my closet where that came from.

The barn now sporting a new roof, plaster, doors and paint.  Plus, it's squeaky clean inside!

The barn now sporting a new roof, plaster, doors and paint. Plus, it’s squeaky clean inside!

So, in short, DO pack heavy and plan to share. Great things to take and share include work gloves, water bottles, t-shirts, soccer balls – which are practically a currency in Haiti, not to mention an instant party – hand pumps for those soccer balls, Crocs, flip flops, you name it. David brought with him a few old Army duffels jam packed with stuff, and it’s impossible not to feel moved when handing these things out. So cram those backpacks and share the wealth! It feels good.

Buying supplies at the Haitian "Home Depot" - don't worry, it's just paint

Buying supplies at the Haitian “Home Depot” – don’t worry, it’s just paint

Take change – Sometimes I pride myself on not being a total moron. More often, however, I’m kicking myself for being a complete idiot, and nothing was more idiotic than waiting until the last minute to hit the money mover prior to my trip. The end result was that I took mostly $20s.

How dumb could I be? In Haiti, people don’t make change, because they don’t HAVE change. Haitian workers will move mountains for $8 a day – we paid them $10 – so that puts those $20s in perspective. Plus, it’s not a shopping Mecca. Talented crafts people will come to you with really neat trinkets for sale, but they’re not expensive items, so you end up buying armloads of this stuff because you have a $20, not a $10 or a $5 or a $1 and – I repeat – they can’t make change. But it’s ok – the way I look at it, I stimulated the local economy.

In short, break those freaking $20s and take dollars, dollars, dollars. Who cares if you look like a stripper on payday? You won’t have them – or shouldn’t have them – when you get home anyway. Oh, and leave the credit cards and debit cards at home. You won’t need them either.

Many homes in Jeremie do not have access to running water

Many homes in Jeremie do not have access to running water

If it’s yellow, let it mellow… – and I think you know the rest of that little gem. Ok, here’s the reality of Haiti – few people have running water in their homes. While fresh water does seem to be plentiful – it pours out of the mountains – getting it some place useful, like in homes, seems to be a real problem. Even well-kept places like the Methodist guesthouse where we stayed in Jeremie which do have running water, still have issues. Water pumps in Haiti are few and far between, thus the majority of faucets and toilets are gravity-based.

What does this mean for you? It means don’t waste water and forget about water pressure. And as for hot water, don’t even think about it. Besides, it’s a hot country and you already smell like old cabbage so do you really need it? Nope! But do take sanitary wipes or antibacterial gel. It comes in pretty darn handy. And if you’re a germ-a-phobe, well, let’s just say you may have a few issues with Haiti. But if you’re a dirt-eating, nose-picking, wipe-your-hands-on-your shirt farm girl like me, you’re good to go.

Sometimes I smelled like a camel AND a sheep

Sometimes I smelled like a camel AND a sheep

With that said, keep these water-related ground rules in mind. When showering, get wet, turn off the water, then shampoo and soap up. Then rinse off and do it quick. I also found that if I sponged out a few things in the sink quickly before showering, I could let them soak in the sink while I showered and drain while I dried off and got dressed. Again, bring a clothesline too as you’ll need somewhere to hang your stuff overnight to dry.

Also, if you’re there for a week and you eat the same kind of diet we ate – goat, rice, beans, fish, and lots of fresh fruit – be prepared to poop. Why do I bring that up? Reminder – gravity-based water flow! If you must take a dump, do it downstairs if you’re in a two-story building. You’ll need the extra *umph* to get it down the pipes. Trust me, one such episode in the upstairs restroom took a rest stop somewhere along the way down and the end result wasn’t pretty. I’m just saying, you know. So snatch the pebble from my hand, grasshopper, and poop downstairs. One more thing – never put toilet paper in the actual toilet, no matter WHAT is on it. Toilet paper goes in the trash can beside the toilet – again, gravity-based water flow. It’s self-explanatory, really.

It gets dark early in Haiti

It gets dark early in Haiti

Don’t panic if the lights go out – When you’re in a strange country, and it’s a developing one at that, you may be slightly on edge when odd things happen, say, for instance, the power goes out at night. Don’t panic. Sure, in the States, power outages are fairly uncommon. But in Jeremie, that turned out to be an almost nightly occurrence. Once at dinner, we were all plunged into darkness, but what fun it was when everyone whipped out their cell phones and lit up the night!

I don’t know what caused the outages or if they really do just shut off the power to the city after hours, but by morning it was always back on. Plus, as a country hovering just over the equator, the sun is up by 6:00 a.m. and down by 6:00 p.m. so you’re going to keep odd hours anyway. Nine in the evening seems almost like midnight, so you’ll probably already be in bed when it happens. Also, it’s much more quiet at night than at 5:00 in the morning anyway so sleep when the sleeping’s good. Dogs, birds, chickens, motorbikes, they all seem to start up early and often. You’ll appreciate hitting the sack early, trust me.

Cristella put my hair in pigtails

Cristella put my hair in pigtails

Be prepared to be petted – If you’re a glow-in-the-dark white gal like me and have bushy fake blonde hair bordering on cocker spaniel, prepare to be petted, especially if there are any young Haitian girls anywhere in your immediate vicinity. We had the good fortune to spend some time with some adorable young people at the Gebeau orphanage and, as I quickly found out, long blonde hair is a Haitian orphan magnet. Plus, these sweet children will want to hold your hand, sit on your lap, hug you and walk with you and they will follow you like puppies. It melts your heart. So let them. Hug them, hold them, play with them, sing with them, walk with them. I did draw the line at having the mole on my arm twisted, but you’re free to set your own limits.

Walking with school children on a mountain road above Jeremie

Walking with school children on a mountain road above Jeremie

Eat what you can, when you can – Maybe goat’s not your thing or maybe you don’t like bones in your fish, but, regardless, when you get the chance to eat, eat. Why? Because you just don’t know when you’ll eat again. Sure, we packed lunches every day, but when you’re working with guys who are carrying five-pound buckets of rocks on their heads for a quarter-of a mile for hours and they have no lunch, you’ll give them yours. And you’ll give them your water or Pepsi or whatever else you have too. Otherwise, you’re a heartless creature so what the hell are you doing in Haiti anyway?

Workers hauling rock by hand

Workers hauling rock by hand

So when breakfast is placed before you, pig out. And when dinner lands in front of you, pig out again. Besides, the food is fabulous, the fruit is amazing, though I have to warn you – my new friend, Janet, may have another opinion when it comes to goat.

Be prepared to expand your comfort zone – When I first arrived in Jeremie, I didn’t know what to expect. We landed on a hardpan runaway in a small commuter plane, there was an armed guard waiting at the cinderblock airport, he had us get in the covered porch with barred windows and he shut us and our luggage in while we waited for our ride. Several men came and stared at us through the windows, watching us. I kept an eye on my bag. And at the time, I felt like a caged animal.

Looking at our ride through the porch bars of the Jeremie airport

Looking at our ride through the porch bars of the Jeremie airport

On the ride to the guesthouse, we passed what appeared to me at the time to be squalor and debris. The road was gutted and pitted and in places broken pipes gushed water which further eroded the roads. People carried buckets on their heads and bananas and various other things. Thin cattle and goats were tied to the sides of the road. It was overwhelming and I was, at first, wondering what to expect. I felt small and somewhat vulnerable even within the safety of the truck cab hauling us to our destination. Hey, cut me some slack. It was my first visit to a developing country, ok.

But what a difference a week makes! As we drove through downtown Jeremie one day, it reminded me how in Venice, Italy, laws actually exist to PREVENT people from upgrading the exterior of their buildings. Thus, in Venice, moldering cracked walls are “fashionable.” In Jeremie, I first looked upon very similar walls as ugly. Why? Clearly I needed a new mindset. So, as the week progressed, what had first looked like rubble and squalor became reality. Jeremie is beautiful in her own colorful way.

Riding through downtown Jeremie on the way to work

Riding through downtown Jeremie on the way to work

And, as for the guard at the airport? Well, when we left, he was there again, but this time we stood outside with him, laughing and chatting. He asked me if this was my first trip to Haiti and so we talked about how I liked it and what I thought. He smiled and joked with me and let me take his picture. I forgot about my bag – if they wanted my camel smelling clothes, so be it – and I was happy and content and enjoying life. I hated to leave. And this time, I knew quite a few of those men and we joked and shook hands and hugged. By now, I knew them and I knew too that I would miss them.

Thus, by the time I left, I was at peace with Jeremie, and with Haiti. What a beautiful country and what an even more beautiful people. After a week of walking and working and swimming and taking motor-taxies and sitting at the Amberge Inn, visiting with new friends, etc., I felt my comfort level grow, expand and enlarge with each passing hour. And with it, my comfort level with Haiti and with the world at large expanded too – which, again, is just one of many reasons why I travel.

Haiti's forests are teeming with bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, papayas, almonds, mangos, etc.

Haiti’s forests are teeming with bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, papayas, almonds, mangos, etc.

So, when you take your first mission trip – and you know you will – expect at first to be unsettled, but keep an open mind. Plan and prepare, but be flexible. Open your heart. Smile. Relax. Work hard. Wash often. Eat hearty. Reset your benchmarks for life. And enjoy. If you get the opportunity to go to Jeremie, Haiti, you should. You’ll never be the same.

Happy travels!

– Robin Winzenread Fritz

Taking off into the wild blue yonder with young David Duba - it was the first trip to Haiti for both of us.  Our leader, Big Dave, is a pro at this.

Taking off into the wild blue yonder with young David Duba – it was the first trip to Haiti for both of us. Our leader, Big Dave, is a pro at this.